When it comes to claims about screen time we need more sense and less hype

The Guardian Australia - - Science - Pete Etchells

Screen time is one of the more di­vi­sive con­tem­po­rary is­sues in psy­cho­log­i­cal science. In a sense, this is no sur­prise – smart­phone use, par­tic­u­larly among chil­dren and ado­les­cents, has con­sis­tently in­creased in re­cent years. And as with any new form of dis­rup­tive tech­nol­ogy, there are ques­tions around what con­sti­tutes healthy and mal­adap­tive use, both at an in­di­vid­ual and so­ci­etal level.

The prob­lem with the de­bate about screen time, how­ever, is that very of­ten the ar­gu­ments de­volve into overly-sim­plis­tic scare­mon­ger­ing claims. This peaked back in Au­gust, with the pub­li­ca­tion of an opin­ion piece in the At­lantic by Jean Twenge, pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at San Diego State Univer­sity. Un­der the head­line Have Smart­phones De­stroyed a Gen­er­a­tion?, Twenge ar­gued that teenagers are on the verge of a cat­a­strophic men­tal health cri­sis, and the cul­prit was the smart­phone.

Among those that ac­tively re­search screen time, Twenge’s ar­gu­ments have been dis­missed at best as fall­ing foul of the old cor­re­la­tion/ cau­sa­tion fal­lacy, and of cherry-pick­ing ev­i­dence to suit a par­tic­u­lar opin­ion about smart­phones be­ing “bad”. This prob­lem is com­pounded by the fact that the re­search field is rel­a­tively young, and there sim­ply isn’t enough con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence to come to any firm con­clu­sions yet.

Nev­er­the­less, to­day sees the pub­li­ca­tion of a new re­search ar­ti­cle by Twenge and col­leagues in Clin­i­cal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Science that raises an­other alarm about screen use. Us­ing data from a cou­ple of na­tion­ally rep­re­sen­ta­tive sur­veys in the US, they claim that be­tween 2010 and 2015, re­ports of de­pres­sive symp­toms, sui­cide-re­lated out­comes, and rates of sui­cide in US teens have been in­creas­ing, and that this is cor­re­lated with an in­crease in smart­phone use over the same time pe­riod.

The pa­per makes for a con­fus­ing read. Although the data are clearly cor­re­la­tional, the lan­guage veers over into mak­ing causal claims through­out. More­over, as­sum­ing that the data are cor­rectly re­ported, the study ac­tu­ally shows that for male teens, de­pres­sive symp­toms have flat­lined since 2010, and sui­cide-re­lated out­comes have ac­tu­ally de­creased. What up­ward trends we do see seem to be driven by data from fe­male teens – but the ef­fects are weak. An ex­cel­lent anal­y­sis by Amy Or­ben at Ox­ford Univer­sity sug­gests that only 0.36% of re­ported de­pres­sive symp­toms in the fe­males in the sam­ple can be pre­dicted by so­cial me­dia use. The sim­ple fact of the mat­ter is that the pa­per doesn’t seem to ac­count for any of the im­por­tant fac­tors that might be driv­ing de­pres­sion and sui­cide rates in US teens. “It’s an­other en­try in a long list of ex­ploratory find­ings that either af­firm your pre-ex­ist­ing bi­ases about screen time or stoke your worst fears as a par­ent” says Pro­fes­sor Andy Przy­byl­ski, se­nior re­search fel­low at the Ox­ford In­ter­net In­sti­tute. “But em­pir­i­cally, there’s noth­ing new here.”

Twenge is the au­thor of a re­cent pop­u­lar science book, iGen: why to­day’s su­per-con­nected kids are grow­ing up less re­bel­lious, more tol­er­ant, less happy – and com­pletely un­pre­pared for adult­hood. The book broadly makes the same claims as out­lined in the At­lantic ar­ti­cle, and clearly po­si­tion Twenge’s neg­a­tive stance on dig­i­tal ac­tiv­i­ties. Along­side con­sul­tancy work on the topic (which will of course ben­e­fit from me­dia cov­er­age of her sci­en­tific pub­lish­ing), she is be­com­ing the go-to ac­ces­si­ble voice on the sub­ject for news out­lets – po­ten­tially drown­ing out more bal­anced view­points based on more ro­bust science. All in all, this pa­per doesn’t seem to add any­thing new to an al­ready con­fus­ing re­search lit­er­a­ture, and will likely be picked up in other news out­lets as the lat­est study to show that smart­phones are hav­ing a calami­tous ef­fect on the youth of to­day.

How can we get our facts straight about screen time?

When it comes to screen time re­search, we seem to be stuck in a cy­cle of cor­re­la­tional find­ings stok­ing the flames of scare­mon­ger­ing ar­ti­cles in the me­dia, and it’s not get­ting us any­where. We’re at a point where we need to take stock of what the cur­rent re­search tells us, what are the key ques­tions we need to be ask­ing, and what re­search we can do to try and an­swer those ques­tions. In Jan­uary 2018, I’m or­gan­is­ing a meet­ing at the Well­come Col­lec­tion in Lon­don to try and do just that. The aim is to bring to­gether re­searchers, fun­ders, science jour­nal­ists, par­ents and other in­ter­ested par­ties to dis­cuss how we can move screen time re­search for­ward in a pos­i­tive and pro­duc­tive way. The ev­i­dence needed to de­velop a use­ful and sus­tain­able pol­icy on screen time is lack­ing, and it is my hope that the meet­ing will pro­vide a start­ing point for chang­ing this. If you are a re­searcher with an in­ter­est in screen time, a health­care pro­fes­sional who comes across screen time is­sues in your prac­tice, or you’re just in­ter­ested in what the cur­rent state of the art is, all are wel­come to at­tend.

If we want to get out of the rut of overly hyped sto­ries about screen time, we need to start plan­ning the next gen­er­a­tion of ro­bust stud­ies that can ac­tu­ally tell us some­thing use­ful about dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy, and we need to fig­ure out how best to com­mu­ni­cate that re­search. You can find more de­tails here.

Pete Etchells is a Reader in Psy­chol­ogy and Science Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and the au­thor of the up­com­ing book Lost in a Good Game, due for pub­li­ca­tion in Spring 2019.

A new study shows a cor­re­la­tion be­tween so­cial me­dia use and de­pres­sion and sui­cide in US teens. But the pic­ture is more com­pli­cated than that. Pho­to­graph: Cul­tura Creative (RF) / Alamy/Alamy

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